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Is there life before death?

Sigmund Freud once said that the only feeling that doesn’t lie is anxiety. This is a hard thing for us to hear, because no feeling terrifies us more than anxiety. And that’s why we avoid it like the plague.

Anxiety disrupts our carefully constructed and managed zones of comfort, and confronts us with the harsh realities of the world without. Anxiety, in other words, is the way that we feel the reality of the things that we can’t change, the things that just won’t go away.

But that’s why we try so hard to suppress it. We believe that — if we ignore it, if we sedate it, if we pretend that it isn’t there, if we close our eyes — it will just go away. One of the great luxuries of modern life is that we have so many ways of avoiding the things that make us feel anxious.

If we don’t like the traumatic images we are seeing on SBS World News, we change the channel and watch The Biggest Loser instead. If we don’t like what we are hearing on Radio National, there’s plenty of vulgar banality waiting on Triple M. If you don’t like all that stuff that you hear in church about turning away from your self-centredness and following Jesus, you can always stay home and watch Hillsong and feel much better about yourself.

But deep down, the anxiety never goes away. It’s always there, lurking just beneath the surface. As Freud explained, this is because anxiety is nothing but the chill we feel when the shadow of death falls over us. In the end, the suppression of anxiety is an attempt to avoid the inevitability of death.

So what happens when we try to ‘change the channel’ on death?

How do we try to forget our own mortality?

The answer — nursing homes. While there are, no doubt, some wonderful examples of aged care facilities that provide both community and dignity for those that have entered the twilight years of their lives and need additional care, this is certainly not the experience of the majority of our elderly.

Regarded as painful reminders of our mortality and fragility, and as unwelcome disruptions of our comfortable lives, so many of our elderly are consigned to sub-standard, and often degrading, care as a way of classifying them as not really alive, but ‘not yet dead’. In other words, we institutionalize so that we can forget. Out of sight, out of mind.

Our collective failure to care for, and indeed to honour, the lives of our elderly is one of the great causes of weakness and moral impoverishment in our culture. Lives tempered by age and shaped by hard-won virtue are gifts of God, and it is to our detriment that we ignore them.

Some of the great theologians of the 17th and 18th centuries described old age as ‘that great theatre of virtue and courage’.

They imagined aging as a kind of final transaction, whereby the elderly show what the good life looks like, having finally reached the point where they can drop all pretense and tell the story of their lives honestly. But they also bear witness to what the good death looks like — how to face the completion of one’s life with courage and faith. All the while, those gathered ’round in loving community express their humble gratitude for these lives well lived, and urge them not to waver in their faith as they sprint toward their final prize.

There is life before death, however much we may wish to deny it.

There is life before death — and what life it is! It may be weak and frail, but so are the other gifts that God has given us in order to demonstrate his grace, and confound our supposed strength. As the apostle Paul put it, ‘the weakness of God is stronger than human strength’.

Scott Stephens is the minister at Forest Lake Uniting Church and lecturer in theological ethics at Trinity Theological College